Monday, March 1, 2010

Monday of the Second Week in Lent

(Daniel 9:4b-10; Luke 6:36-38)

Singer George M. Cohan once starred in a Broadway play, “I’d rather be right (than be President).” Like Cohan’s character, many people are so determined to be right that they have great difficulty admitting their mistakes when they indeed err. It has been said that the capacity to admit error marked a decided difference in personality between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Einstein evidently remarked that if his theory of relativity were proved wrong, he would investigate why and try to formulate another theory. Freud, on the other hand, apparently dismissed the possibility that his theory of psychoanalysis might be in error.

As humans striving to transcend our limitations, it is critical that we admit our mistakes. God calls us to holiness which means that we root out sin by relentless self-examination and correction. In any pursuit of excellence the going is hard at first but gets easier with practice. If we regularly exam our consciences and come to confession, we should find the seriousness and frequency of our sins diminishing. On the other hand, if we stubbornly refuse to search for sin in our lives, we are likely to miss even the faults that are apparent to those who know us.

The first reading today demonstrates true repentance. The prophet Daniel is pleading to God on behalf of all the people in Babylonian exile. He acknowledges the people’s collective sin and petitions their forgiveness. There should be no doubt of obtaining God’s mercy when such a forthright confession is made.

Friday, February 27, 2010

Friday of the First Week of Lent

(Ezekiel 18:21-28; Matthew 5:20-28)

Perhaps because most Catholic adults were once Catholic teenagers, they have become minimalists. Teenagers wonder what is the least that they have to do to get to heaven. They will ask a youth minister, for example, how long one might kiss his girlfriend or her boyfriend before committing a sin against chastity. Or they may ask in Confession how many beers one can drink before committing the sin of drunkenness. This type of inquiry is more characteristic of the scribes and the Pharisees, whom Jesus discredits in today’s gospel, than of his true disciples. His followers are to be perfect; that is, they are to forego not only murder but also angry ridicule; they are to avoid not only adultery but also its fountainhead -- lustful thoughts.

Although it sounds neurotic in our therapeutic age, the quest for perfection is not intended to be a compulsive exercise. We have the Holy Spirit to gently point the way and to take up slack. Also, as the gospel today shows, falling short in the process is tolerable. But when we fail, we need to ask forgiveness and then resume the effort. Doing so, in fact, means that we are making progress toward the goal. Interestingly, Jesus indicates that seeking God’s forgiveness after we have offended another is not enough, whether or not we do so in sacramental confession. No, first we must reconcile with the people we have hurt; then we bring our sin offering to God.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thursday of the First Week in Lent

(Esther C12:14-16; 23-25; Matthew 7:7-12)

You are late for a meeting and cannot find a parking space. So you say a prayer for help. Should you expect that a space will be forthcoming? Or should you just prepare an excuse for being tardy? The first stance bespeaks presumption and the second, desperation. The proper disposition lies in between. We should not expect God to treat our every request as if He were our attendant. In the gospel today, Jesus defines His relation to us. He is like a father who loves all his children dearly. Nor must we think that God might hold back something necessary for our well-being. He knows our needs better than we do. Our attitude vis-à-vis God should always be trust.

Perhaps we would accept Jesus’ exhortation to prayer more readily if we think of God as our family physician as well as our father. As our doctor knows how our sick bodies will respond to different stimuli, God knows what is best for us in every situation. Like our doctor’s prescription of strict dieting or, in severe cases, chemotherapy, God’s ministration may not be pleasant or even intuitive. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to ignore what God’s sends our way as inconsiderate and foolish not to seek His help in the first place. No, God’s care for us and His knowledge of us warrant our utmost confidence.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wednesday of the First Week in Lent

(Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 11:29-32)

A few years ago a town councilman on Long Island petitioned the U.S. Congress to award posthumous American citizenship to Anne Frank. She was the Jewish girl whose diary helped move the world to condemn the Holocaust. When Anne’s family was hiding in the Netherlands during World War II, their American relatives requested the American government to grant the family admittance to the United States. The request was bureaucratically denied. Eventually the German occupiers of the Netherlands found the Frank family’s hideaway and sent them to a concentration camp where Anne died. Supporters of the Congressional petition said that granting citizenship would be a sign of repentance for American complicity in the Holocaust. Critics of the measure argue that it would be a cheap gesture since it requires no sacrifice on the part of the American people.

Although both proponents and opponents of granting citizenship made good arguments, Congress evidently never voted on the issue. For now let us note how the incident illustrates the call for repentance in the Scripture readings today. Jonah announces God’s wrath toward Nineveh because of its evil ways, and the people there repent. The author of the story emphasizes how sincere and complete the repentance is. Not only commoners but the king and, curiously, even the animals of the city fast and wear sackcloth. In the gospel Jesus calls his generation evil because it refuses to repent of its sins after hearing his preaching.

We too must repent of our sins, not just symbolically but wholeheartedly. This means that we don’t just say we are sorry but mean it wholeheartedly. Our contrition must be accompanied by a sincere attempt to change sinful ways. A young woman once confessed of having sex with her boyfriend. “Will you promise not to have sex with him again?” the priest asked her. “No,” she answered with candor, “I can’t promise that.” The priest then told her that he could not give absolution. Just so, unless we must promise wholeheartedly to stop taking God’s name in vain, talking about others, or committing any other sin, we have not really repented as Jesus calls us to do.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday of the First Week in Lent

(Isaiah 55:10-11; Matthew 6:7-13)

Church fathers used to say that prayer does not change God; it changes us. To the extent that this is true, we should find ourselves conforming to the prayer that Christians pray most often, the “Our Father.” We might see the following changes being made over the years. First, we come to see God first and foremost as Father. Not everyone has an affectionate relationship with his or her father, but more often than not fathers care for their children. Maturing as Christians, we want to recognize God as one who loves and supports most of all.

God is neither poor nor small-minded. Rather he is a king with the universe at His command. Recognizing His majesty, we begin to take responsibility for creation as our heritage. This means that we concern ourselves with the environment and, more so, with the well-being of other humans.

Finally, the “Our Father” inclines us to forgive our offenders. Some think that this stance implies forgiving wrongdoers whether or not they express remorse. Eagerness to pardon, however, seems unreflective, untrue to how forgiveness is described in Scripture, and unlikely to achieve reconciliation. It seems to me more faithful to always pray for those who offend us that they might see their mistake, if indeed they were wrong, or that we might see ours if that is the case. (Perhaps both parties will usually recognize complicity in wrong-doing.) When the guilt is revealed and due contrition expressed, both the offended and the offender will find reconciliation warranted.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Chair of St. Peter, apostle

(I Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 16:13-19)

Last Monday Americans celebrated not just Abraham Lincoln and George Washington but all their country’s presidents. Today the Church feasts not just St. Peter and St. Pius X but all her popes. The list is long – 263 in number – and illustrious. There have been a few scoundrels along the line, but for the most part men of wisdom and piety have occupied the office.

There are many titles for the pope. He is the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome, and the Patriarch of the West. Perhaps the most becoming of all titles, because of its gospel roots, is what Pope St. Gregory the Great named himself and his successors echoed – “Servant of the Servants of God.” The spirit of service drew many non-Catholics to Pope John Paul II who dedicated himself to world peace and unity.

Today’s gospel illustrates what is expected of the pope. As Simon in Matthew’s gospel is the first human to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, so the pope must exhibit clarity in faith. Then, just as Jesus names Simon, “Peter” the rock upon which he establishes the Church, so too the pope is to support all Christians, disciplining where necessary but more characteristically encouraging devotion by charity.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday alter Ash Wednesday

(Isaiah 58:1-9ª; Matthew 9:14-15)

Like Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American farm labor organizer, often fasted. He did not necessarily ask others to accompany him in his sacrifice. He said that he fasted so that might be cleansed inwardly. He knew how fasting enables one to focus on objectives. Distractions, at least from food, will not sway the faster because he or she has already made a decision about them. Also, the sense of inner hunger gives urgency to the faster’s purpose.

The prophet Isaiah in the first reading today scolds Israel for not fasting rightly. Religious fasting should remind people of their first priority, which is God. However, Israel only exploits fasting to increase profits. It is as if the money the people save by not eating is used not to help the poor or even to buy some necessity for home, but to play the lottery.

During Lent the Church calls us to fast. The ashes we accepted on Wednesday were an explicit recognition that we have sinned. We have to ask ourselves, “What are we going to do about our sins?” The three great disciplines of Lent comprise the answer. First, we are going to turn away from the gratification of our appetites. Then, we will pray to God for forgiveness. Finally, we will show greater care for everyone, especially those in need. In these ways, we shall reach our goal, which is none other than God.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 9:22-25)

When Jesus speaks of taking up one’s cross in the gospel, we usually think of accepting the hardships that are part of every person’s life. Even the rich get sick. Even the famous suffer heartache. We want to bear with disease and anxiety with the same patience and courage that characterized Jesus as he headed toward Jerusalem.

But when the gospel speaks of the cross at the beginning of Lent, another idea comes to mind. We think not so much of the trials thrust upon us as of the penances taken on voluntarily. We search for ways to deprive ourselves – perhaps from some food or drink that we enjoy and from the rest or entertainment that we defer in helping others. Certainly in our age of instant gratification such behavior appears bizarre and even masochistic to many, but we know differently. We understand that such sacrifice conforms us more to the one whom we not just admire and follow but who gives us salvation.

How does this happen? Jesus allowed his persecutors to torture him out of love for us. We show a parallel love by denying ourselves. It is the same spiritual motivation that people show in sympathy actions – a wife giving up wine in support of her alcoholic husband or even a union showing solidarity with another that is on strike by calling a work stoppage. Also self-denial makes us morally stronger, again like Jesus. We exhibit control over our sensual appetites as well as the capacity to better appreciate their fulfillment on the day of glory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

(Joel 2:12-18; II Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6.16-18)

Before computers and electronic scanners it was quite common for a business to yearly set apart a few days, usually in January, to take inventory. During that time they closed the shop in order to check both the goods they had on hand and what they needed to obtain. It was a process that included every employee so that when the business reopened, all would know exactly how the company was doing.

It seems fair to consider Lent as a kind of inventory. We slow down not just for a few days but for six weeks to take account of our lives. Where we have been excessive – partying, perhaps – we want to slow down. Where we may have fallen short – maybe in praying or caring for the needy – we endeavor to make up for lost time. In the epistle today St. Paul pleads with the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God.” That is, they are to settle their accounts, as it were, with the Lord by asking forgiveness for their sins and redoubling efforts to live in accord with Christ’s grace.

“But six weeks is a mighty long inventory,” some might object. True, but we should not pretend that Lent is really a business operation. It is even more like a long retreat in the desert where we come to know the mercy of God as the Israelis did after the Exodus. It is meant to give us a new beginning each year, not in the sense that we go back to where we started from, but that we grow from the best that we were in the past by correcting mistakes and trying harder. It is coming to realize at least a bit more how we have been made members of God’s family with full rights of inheritance to eternal life.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 1:12-18; Mark 8:14-21)

Talk about taking coal to Newcastle – the disciples worry that they have no bread when they the bread of life is sitting in their midst! Typically in this gospel, Jesus’ disciples don’t get it. They fail to understand who Jesus really is. Like with many people today they are so concerned about the food on the table that they do not perceive that he has much more to offer than Wonderbread.

At least the Pharisees think in spiritual terms. But Jesus sees their quest spoiled by arrogance that refuses to recognize him as coming from God. Because they believe Jesus to be an imposter, they have asked him to work a sign, which his failure to perform would disillusion the masses following him. Jesus describes them as leaven because of their puffed-up self-esteem and their theology which would tempt God to deliver a sign on demand. Those who spend time in church should take Jesus’ admonition to heart, “Guard against the leaven of the Pharisees...”

Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 1:1-11; Mark 8:11-13)

Recently I was asked to produce a certificate – a sign -- showing that I am ordained in order to celebrate Mass in the prison. In an age when people arrive and leave communities with great frequency, who could blame such an institution for wanting to keep records of its visitors? Perhaps, then, the request from the Pharisees that Jesus produce a sign that he is whom he claims to be is in order. By this point in the Gospel of Mark Jesus has indicated that he can forgive sins and that he is the “Lord of the Sabbath.” But the mighty deeds that he has performed to date are just hearsay to the Pharisees. They want to see him do a work of power to corroborate the assertion that he has been sent from God.

However, Jesus has not come to offer such assurance. He intends to arouse faith that God is bringing about a new creation through him. Although people believe this after witnessing and even hearing about his cures and other wonders, they should not expect that Jesus perform such acts at their command. This would not produce faith in God, but quite the opposite – subjecting God to personal desire. The Pharisees are left frustrated. To avoid such a sensation and, more importantly, to assume the rewards of faith, we want simply to place our trust in Jesus. We will ask his assistance certainly since he has invited us to do so. But we will be careful to add like he did himself in his prayer to the Father, “Not mine, but your will be done.”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Our Lady of Lourdes

(I Kings 11:4-13; Mark 7:24-30)

An adolescent boy had a brain tumor. The doctors thought the condition terminal, but the family was determined that something could be done. They decided to seek Our Lady’s assistance at Lourdes. Why not? Since the apparitions of the Virgin there over 150 years ago, there have been sixty-seven officially recognized miracles and seven thousand inexplicable cures. In the case of the adolescent, however, help was given in another form. Not too long after he and his mother returned home from the trip, the boy died. Was the family disappointed that no miracle took place? No, the mother said, going to Lourdes and being with all the pilgrims there enabled the family and the boy himself to face his death with calm assurance that all would be well.

In today’s gospel the mother of a girl possessed by an unclean spirit goes to Jesus seeking similar assistance as the family going to Lourdes. Also like those pilgrims, the woman is not disappointed. Jesus frees the girl of the demon so that she might live not a normal life but one giving praise and thanks to God.

When we are sick and call on God for help, especially in the Sacrament of the Sick, we can be confident that God answers our prayer. He sends the Holy Spirit upon us so that we might face our troubles with courage. Sometimes -- perhaps more often than chance would have it -- we will find the Spirit strengthening us physically. In any case, we will be assured that all will be well.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 11:4-13; Mark 7:31-37)

The film Babel, an Academy Award nominee a few years ago, showed how the world is interconnected. A Japanese schoolgirl is deaf and mute like the man brought to Jesus in the gospel today. She is also desperately lonely. Her father, who is depressed over the loss of his wife, had been hunting in Morocco where he left his gun with a guide. The guide sells the gun to a herder who presents it prematurely to his son. The son is goaded into shooting at a tour bus and seriously injures a Southern Californian woman traveling with her husband. The couple left their children with their Mexican housekeeper whose reckless nephew takes them across the border, then jeopardizes everyone’s life by trying to evade the Border patrol upon returning. The story leaves the viewer identifying with all of these characters in the global human quest for love.

We should similarly identify with that deaf-mute whom Jesus heals. We too have trouble hearing– not so much with our ears but with our hearts. We too falter in our speech by forgetting to give the testimony of faith to those in need of assurance. In a world where sensual gratification has become not only the lowest common denominator but also the highest recognizable goal, we do well to allow Jesus to open our ears and to straighten our tongues so that we might proclaim what is truly a truer fulfilling. This is the message of Babel – people need to listen carefully to one another and to respond compassionately.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

St. Scholastica, virgin

(I Kings 10:1-10; Mark 7:14-23)

There is a charming story about St. Scholastica which illustrates the assertion of Jesus about over-concern with the law in the gospel today. Scholastica used to meet with her twin brother, the venerable St. Benedict, once a year in a little house outside the famous Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. On one of these occasions when both were very old, they were having such a wonderful conversation that Scholastica wanted to stay there talking through the night. Benedict resisted, however, because of his own monastic rule. Then the heavens opened with a tremendous rainstorm forcing Benedict to concede to his sister’s wish. The downpour seemed to manifest God’s will that the siblings have this extra time together before they died.

Like Scholastica’s intuition that it would be all right for her brother to spend long hours in conversation with her, Jesus in the gospel judges it possible to eat non-kosher foods. Doing so, he invites non-Jews as well as Jews into his Father’s Kingdom. We can add that it is permissible, perhaps even necessary, to suspend laws and regulations at times to realize a greater good. A simple example is absenting oneself from Sunday mass because of sickness. Of course, good judgment in these cases requires prudence. Without such virtue selfishness, and not desire to realize a clearly greater good, may direct our action.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 8:22-23.27-30; Mark 7:1-11)

Is cleanliness next to Godliness? We used to say so, but the gospel today may give us second thoughts. Jesus spurns the Pharisees and scribes for adhering to purity traditions that ensure the fulfillment of the Law while ignoring the intent of the Law. The Law purports to guide people to virtue. As interpreted by the men who come to Jesus in the gospel today, it makes people contemptuous.

Still Eucharistic ministers are given pause when they see a child extend dirty hands to receive the Body of Christ. Are these ministers contemptuous if they lecture the little one afterwards about the need to wash one’s hands before receiving Communion? This is hardly so since they suspect with good reason that the child is careless or, at least, uninstructed about what he or she is doing. Jesus admonishes the Pharisees in the gospel for similar shallowness.

So is cleanliness next to Godliness? It is when we are talking of cleanliness of heart. In the heart we fit our actions to our religious beliefs. We must take care to do this without allowing contempt or any other vice to defile our efforts.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 8:1-7.9-13; Mark 6:53-56)

There’s an old story about a chicken and a pig planning the farmer’s birthday. The chicken says to the pig, “Why don’t we give the farmer a breakfast of bacon and eggs?” The pig responds, “Wait a minute. For you, it’s a small donation. For me it’s total sacrifice.”

Humans have always sacrificed animals to express their gratefulness to God. In the account of the dedication of Solomon’s temple today, “sheep and oxen too many to number or count” are offered to the Lord. Because animals are so vital for the welfare of the people, they actually represent the people themselves. The reading today is saying that the people are attempting to give themselves over fully to God in thanksgiving.

Perhaps as often as not, however, sacrifices of humans are imperfect. People do not present to God the best that they have, but the expendable. Their offerings do not represent a commitment of the heart but, like a lie, an artful deceit. This is why Jesus has to sacrifice himself. Representing all of humanity because he is its creator and flawless example, Jesus makes the perfect sacrifice to God the Father. Of course, Jesus does not immolate himself but thoroughly exhausts himself in bringing about his Father’s Kingdom. Because his efforts are too good for the egotism of the world to bear, he is condemned to death. Then, in determined resignation, the sacrifice is completed on the cross. Now humans are really given to God.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Memorial of St. Agatha, virgin and martyr

(Sirach 47:2-11; Mark 6:14-29)

The word enigma comes from a Greek word meaning riddle. An enigma is more than what meets the eye. Or, we might say, an enigma confounds the eye. To some people Senator Jesse Helms was an enigma. He seemed to oppose attempts by government to assist the needy, yet he and his wife adopted a child with a severe physical challenge. In the first half of the narratives of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appears to observers as enigmatic. He works wonders like the prophet Elijah. He confronts hypocrites like Amos or other prophets. He announces the kingdom of God like John the Baptist. Demons know his true identity, but it is elusive to other humans.

Haunted by guilt, Herod Antipas supposes that Jesus must be the reincarnation of the Baptist whose head he capriciously had chopped off. A few chapters later in this gospel Peter will correctly name Jesus as the Messiah, but no one will understand what that term means until he dies on the cross. Then the Roman centurion, an objective witness, will proclaim Jesus the “son of God” after observing his innocence and faithfulness lived out to the last breath. On the third day Jesus will rise from the dead so that all doubts may clear away. Jesus is no longer an enigma but, indeed, the most sterling truth for one to grasp in life.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 2:1-4.10-12; Mark 6:7-13)

St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers as a response to a missionary necessity. Many people, especially in southern France, were attracted to Catharism, a religion that taught the dualism of matter and spirit. What is spiritual, the Catharists believed, is good and what is material is evil. Fine food, drink, even sex between married partners were eschewed. Truth and goodness were to be embraced. For all the abuse that people make of material things we can see how Catharist ideas would have appeal among simple people.

Monks galloping on horses from well-endowed estates had little success in checking the Catharist distortion. Their near betrayal of poverty seemed only to confirm what the dualists were teaching. Dominic dreamed of a different tact. He would form a group of men who would beg for the food they ate and go on foot – two by two -- to preach truth to the people. Actually much of Dominic’s program is based on today’s gospel. Jesus sends his disciples out with the same scarcity of physical resources – “no food, no sack, no money in their belts.” However, they go forth with spiritual power to cast out demons and to cure the sick. Their effect, as we shall read in Saturday’s mass, is considerable.

These stories challenge us to re-examine our lives. They make us ask if our possessions might not give a counter-message concerning what we treasure most. More than that, they urge us to seek spiritual values – truth, beauty, and goodness -- before material goods and to find satisfaction in doing the Lord’s work.

Wedensday, February 3. 2010

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(II Samuel 24:2.9-17; Mark 6:1-6)

Once when he was President, Ronald Reagan’s entourage brought bottled water from the United States to Mexico on a diplomatic mission. The Mexicans were insulted. They thought something like, “Could the President’s staff not trust us to supply our distinguished guests with safe drinking water?” Perhaps this anecdote illumines David’s offense against God in taking a census of his people. At first hearing we may ask, “Is it not prudent for a king to know how many troops he has to fight with and how many people he must protect?” Maybe, but Israel has always been God’s trusteeship. So, God perceives the census as a display of distrust in His providence and knows that David, of all people, realizes this.

Significantly, David recognizes his error and repents. Putting himself at God’s mercy and not human capriciousness shows that he does trust God more than any man or woman. Wisdom dictates that we, as well, make God our first and last refuge. Before we calculate how we are to meet the challenges we face, we should turn to God for assistance. Hopefully, we will beseech Him also on our last day saying, “Lord, have mercy.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

(Malachi3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40)

We will find the gospel today as typically Lucan in at least three ways. First, it highlights the Jewish background of Jesus. Not only are Mary and Joseph observing Jewish religious law, but also Simeon and Anna seem to be lifted off the pages of the Old Testament. With Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, we see a narrative featuring both the Law and the Prophets.

Second, a small but significant characteristic of Luke is his gender inclusiveness. He cannot help include Elizabeth along with Zachariah in his birth account of John the Baptist. Later on, he will tell of the women disciples (although he does not use that term) of Jesus. When the Lucan Jesus tells the parable of the happiness of the shepherd who discovers the lost sheep, he will also tell of the joy of the housewife who finds the lost coin in her house. In the passage today Luke pairs the prophetess Anna with the holy man Simeon as similarly jubilant to witness the coming of the redemption of Israel.

But most important, of course, is the way Luke sees Jesus. He embodies the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel being a light to the nations. Likewise, he brings peace wherever he goes, in this case to the faithful Simeon who has waited for decades for the Messiah. But the light and peace that Jesus brings does not come without great cost. Jesus is “a sign that will be contradicted,” that is, he will be opposed and indeed martyred in the completion of his mission.